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Upward Spirals of Support for College Students

Colleges can prioritize positive emotions to help students succeed.

Source: ReflectedSerendipity/flickr

I had the pleasure of hearing Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina, speak late last year at the Behavioral and Social Sciences Research Festival at the National Institutes of Health. Over the past 25 years, she has revolutionized our perspectives on happiness by asking not “how do we become happy?” (as so many self-help books are eager to answer), but instead the more complex question of “why do we become happy?” Her insights into how positive emotions can create an “upward spiral” that changes our attitudes and behaviors are worth considering when we strategize ways to best support students to succeed in college.

The Broaden-and-Build Theory

Think about the last time you were in a foul mood, whether you were angry at a co-worker, anxious about an approaching deadline, or upset about some slight or injustice. It’s likely that, for a time, your mind was fixated upon resolving the source of that displeasure, and it was difficult to think about anything else. This is perfectly normal, and it’s what makes negative emotions adaptive; they hone us in on problems in the environment and set us to amending them.

Now think about the last time you were in a really good mood. Did you engage in a favorite activity? Did you try something new? Did a light bulb go off in your head that had been long dark? According to Dr. Fredrickson, positive emotions do not exist merely for our hedonic pleasure but serve two important psychological functions: to broaden and to build. First, positive emotions broaden our perspectives and allow us to be more creative, explorative, and playful. It is in these moments of positivity that we challenge ourselves, take risks, and gain true insight into novel problems. When college students experience happiness, therefore, we would expect them to have an easier time learning new concepts and make deeper connections with course material.

Second, positive emotions build psychological resources for dealing with adversity. When experiencing negative emotions, those who are generally happy can call upon their emotional reserves to adapt to their present challenges. Given the substantial academic, financial, and emotional roadblocks many of our students face while trying to earn a degree, these enduring resources are pivotal for their continued success. But as these resources grow, they also create opportunities for new, positive experiences that can further increase happiness, a process Dr. Fredrickson refers to as upward spirals of emotional well-being.

The Upward Spiral Theory of Lifestyle Change

More recently, Dr. Fredrickson has applied the broaden-and-build model to understanding how to improve people’s health. As she discussed at NIH, positive emotions elicited by health behaviors inspire non-conscious incentive salience—a fancy way of saying if we like a behavior, we’ll want to do it even more. That wanting becomes a decision to engage in said behavior, which reciprocally leads to more positive affect. Along the way, these positive feelings build emotional and biological resources for dealing with impediments to our lifestyle change. Moreover, these resources actually make the behavior even more pleasurable over time.

Here’s a concrete example of how this can work. My colleagues and I are training for a 3.5-mile road race, and for most of us this marks a return to running after a long time away. As you may be well aware, those initial workouts can be rough, but they can also elicit a range of positive emotions: pride, joy, confidence, and more. At first, fitting these runs into an already busy life can seem like an obligation, but over time you develop non-conscious incentive salience—you want to go running, and you’re bummed when you can’t! Running becomes a priority, and you do it regularly. More importantly, every time you run you’re building resources against temporary setbacks: Your body becomes more fit and your attitudes toward running change. These resources, in turn, make each subsequent run more pleasurable, and the more benefits you derive from those workouts, the more likely you are to maintain that lifestyle change when you get swamped at work, the weather turns cold, or other obstacles get in your way—the upward spiral in action.

Applying Upward Spirals to Higher Education

But a lifestyle change needn’t just be something that makes us healthier. As I listened to Dr. Fredrickson explain her upward spiral model, I thought about the changes that some students need to make to succeed in college, such as better time management or improved self-advocacy. Given the anxiety and self-doubt that many students experience in college, it’s worth considering ways to prioritize positive emotions around academic behaviors. It may seem obvious that students won’t engage in something that they find unpleasant, yet sometimes we may rely too much on a student’s dedication to long-term goals like a passing grade, a college degree, or a desired career to motivate them. But if we proactively reframe activities so students like to do them, they will want to do them, and be more likely to continue to do them when things get tough—a kind of ‘wise intervention' (as I discussed in my prior post on lay theories of personality). And don’t forget that positive emotions foster creativity and exploration, mindsets that students need to fully embrace the educational opportunities of college.

Take visiting a tutoring center, for example, an act that elicits anxiety among many of our students. What are ways in which we can trigger upward spirals so students keep coming back? One approach may be to consider how the tutoring center can satisfy students’ fundamental need to belong, either by connecting them with peers or older mentors. This is not to suggest that the tutoring center should be a party devoid of the hard work and challenge necessary for students to master new material. However, the upward spiral theory would postulate that a focus on positive emotions, such as belonging, would not only keep students coming back, but would also broaden their cognition in such ways to make tutoring more effective. In fact, recent evidence shows that some students forget new knowledge when it’s associated with unpleasant emotions, an outcome antithetical to their goals and our own.

Another approach may be to rethink the tutoring environment. For good reason, academic resource centers tend to be serene spaces housed in academic buildings. Perhaps relocating these services to be nearby social centers on campus, such as dining halls or gymnasiums, would help students associate tutoring visits with pleasurable emotions. Moreover, the environment itself could elicit positive affect to motivate students to return. Small, unobtrusive ways to reward actions with happiness have shown promising results in changing the public’s behavior. For example, 66% more subway commuters took the stairs instead of the escalator when those stairs emulated piano keys; people became motivated to recycle glass bottles when the receptacle was redesigned to be a game of skill; and drivers reduced their average speed by over four miles per hour when a speed camera could enter them into a lottery.

Moving Ahead

This novel application of the upward spiral model of lifestyle change to academic behaviors (I must have been in a good mood while I was listening to Dr. Fredrickson’s talk!) offers many useful ideas for reshaping student support. We should consider ways that students’ use of campus resources can induce non-conscious incentive salience, whether by the interactions students have in those spaces, where we locate those resources on campus, or how we structure those environments. By leveraging these upward spirals, we can broaden their perspective on their education, and in the end, that is what will build our students into successful college graduates.


Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117, 497-529.

Cohn, M. A., Fredrickson, B. L., Brown, S. L., Mikels, J. A., & Conway, A. M. (2009). Happiness unpacked: Positive emotions increase life satisfaction by building resilience. Emotion, 9, 361-368.

Fredrickson, B. L. (2001). Positive emotions broaden and build. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 47, 1-53.

Fredrickson, B. L., & Joiner, T. (2002). Positive emotions trigger upward spirals toward emotional well-being. Psychological Science, 13, 172-175.

Ramirez, G., McDonough, I. M., & Jin, L. (2017). Classroom stress promotes motivated forgetting of mathematics knowledge. Journal of Educational Psychology. Advance online publication.

Walton, G. M. (2014). The new science of wise psychological interventions. Psychological Science, 23, 73-82.

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